If you’ve noticed more Asian faces lately, it’s because Asian-Americans are the fastest growing ethnic group in North Carolina and much of that growth has been concentrated in the Raleigh-Durham area. As of 2010, there were 255,000 people in the state who identify as either Asian or mixed-Asian heritage. That number is currently doubling every twelve years which gives North Carolina’s Asian-American population the third highest growth rate in the country just behind Nevada and Arizona. While the most recent surge in our Asian population is due to the Triangle’s emergence as a technology center, the first Asian residents of North Carolina came to the state because it reminded them of their native Thailand, then known as Siam. Eng and Chang Bunker, who settled near Mt. Airy in 1839 and died there on the same day in 1874 , may still be the most famous Asian-American residents of North Carolina.
Although the brothers were ethnically Chinese, the Bunkers are best known as the “Siamese Twins.” The two were born joined at the chest and taken to the west by Robert Hunter, a Scottish merchant, who saw their potential as the stars of what have become known as “freak shows”, a forerunner of today’s reality television stardom. The twins were initially exploited by their promoters, but eventually through their determination and intelligence demanded and won a fair share of the proceeds.
The Bunkers act included addressing their audience in English to demonstrate their very distinct personalities and acrobatics that included handstands and cartwheels. By the time they were twenty-eight, they were world famous and had enough to retire from the business of being gawked at.
While most people think of the Antebellum South as either black or white, the twins bought 110 acres in Traphill where, after initial resistance, the locals ultimately accepted them. They eventually married a pair of local sisters, Adelaide and Sarah Yates and became naturalized citizens of the United States. During the period, the Bunkers were not the only Asians in the state. A number of Chinese immigrated to North Carolina to work as miners and farmworkers, though it is unclear how many of those workers had descendants.
As a measure of their assimilation, the Bunker twins – despite exploitation by others early in their careers – owned several slaves and supported the Confederacy during the Civil War. As part of their legacy, the Bunkers fathered twenty-one children and by current count have 1,500 direct descendants including Alex Sink who narrowly lost the race for the governship of Florida in 2010, Pulitzer Prize winnng composer Caroline Shaw, and Air Force Major General Caleb Haynes. Members of the Bunker family hold regular reunions in Mount Airy.